My review of Carpenter’s Sony Classical release Flash with Substance, Cameron Carpenter Takes on Rachmaninoff and Poulenc, in which he played his transcription for Organ and Orchestra of Rachmaninoff’s beautiful Paganini Rhapsody paired with his exciting rendition of the always welcome Poulenc Organ Concerto. It’s kind of a gutsy move to perform the Rachmaninoff with an organ instead of a piano, bordering on sacrilege for some. Given that programming though, the choices for this recording are a little less surprising as both further stretch the notion of what an organist is actually able to play and demonstrate the sheer breadth of this composer/performer’s musical vision.
Here’s the track list for his Decca Gold debut. Take a good look and meet me at the end of this list:
J.S. Bach – The Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 (1741)
Variatio 1. a 1 Clav.
Variatio 2. a 1 Clav.
Variatio 3. Canone all’Unisono. a 1 Clav.
Variatio 4. a 1 Clav.
Variatio 5. a 1 ô vero 2 Clav.
Variatio 6. Canone alla Seconda. a 1 Clav.
Variatio 7. a 1 ô vero 2 Clav. al tempo di Giga
Variatio 8. a 2 Clav.
Variatio 9. Canone alla Terza. a 1 Clav.
Variatio 10. Fughetta. a 1 Clav.
Variatio 11. a 2 Clav.
Variatio 12. a 1 Clav. Canone alla Quarta in moto contrario
Variatio 13. a 2 Clav.
Variatio 14. a 2 Clav.
Variatio 15. Canone alla Quinta. a 1 Clav.: Andante
Variatio 16. Ouverture. a 1 Clav.
Variatio 17. a 2 Clav.
Variatio 18. Canone alla Sesta. a 1 Clav.
Variatio 19. a 1 Clav.
Variatio 20. a 2 Clav.
Variatio 21. Canone alla Settima
Variatio 22. a 1 Clav. alla breve
Variatio 23. a 2 Clav.
Variatio 24. Canone all’Ottava. a 1 Clav.
Variatio 25. a 2 Clav.: Adagio
Variatio 26. a 2 Clav.
Variatio 27. Canone alla Nona. a 2 Clav.
Variatio 28. a 2 Clav.
Variatio 29. a 1 ô vero 2 Clav.
Variatio 30. a 1 Clav. Quodlibet
Aria da Capo
Howard Hanson (arr. Carpenter) – Symphony No. 2 in D-flat Major, Opus 30 “Romantic” (1930)
Andante con tenerezza
Allegro con brio
Yup, the Bach Goldberg variations played on the organ followed by Carpenter’s transcription of Howard Hanson’s (1896-1981) lovely Second Symphony, subtitled, “Romantic” (Trivia: the finale of this work is played over the end credits on the Ridley Scott film, Alien). But I’m willing to wager that neither Hanson aficionados (always among my faves) nor fans of Alien ever imagined hearing this piece played on an organ. But it works.
And that is Carpenter’s genius, or a portion of his genius. He is a man with a mission. He is a virtuoso of the highest order, he is a showman such that earns him a membership in my “glam classical” category, and he is a scholar with wide ranging tastes whose choices have challenged and charmed this humble listener and doubtless many others. My God, the man had a digital portable touring organ custom built for him! It is the instrument upon which he recorded this and the previously referenced disc.
He has antecedents such as Virgil Fox and Anthony Newman, musicians who eschew the stoic musician stereotype (nothing wrong with stoic, either) and engage the audience in their more theatrical manners. And it is the delicate balance between the musicianship and the stage presence that is worth the audience’s time. By my count this is his 8th album released. Check out his web page for more.
Watch any of his YouTube videos where his stage presence is as engaging as his virtuosity. Sure, he plays the “standard repertoire” authoritatively. His Bach is as engaging as his genial manner. This is one exciting composer/performer and it is a joy to watch him develop his brand. All sorts of ideas chase themselves in my mind when I ponder what he’ll do next. But I’d rather be surprised.
Were it not for the wishes of some of my valued readers I would not produce such a list. It has no more validity other than, “These are my personal choices”. But there is some joy to be had in contemplating these past 12 months as I have lived them on this blog. So here goes.
First I have to tell everyone that March, 2022 will mark the 10th anniversary of this blog, a venture which has been a rich and exciting one. Future blogs will soon include, in addition to album/concert reviews, some articles on subjects which I hope will be of interest to the select group of people who read this material and who share my interest in this music (which I know can be anywhere from difficult to repulsive to many ears). But I have deduced that my readers are my community, a community of kindred spirits freed from the boundaries of geography, a number rather larger than I had imagined was possible and one that I’ve come to cherish. Bravo to all of you out there.
COVID 19 has reduced the number of live performances worldwide and I have not attended a live performance since early 2020. But, happily, musicians have continued to produce some amazing work, some of which gets sent to me, and a portion of that gets to be subjected to the analytic scrutiny of my blog.
My lack of attention to any music should never be construed as deprecatory, rather it is simply a matter of limited time to listen. So if I have provided a modicum of understanding or even just alerted someone to something new I am pleased and if ever I have offended, I apologize. All this is my personal celebration of art which has enhanced my spirit and which I want to share with others. Look what Ive found!!!
So, to the task at hand (the “best of” part):
The formula I’ve developed to generate this “favorites retrospective” has been to utilize WordPress’ useful statistics and look at the top viewed posts. From these most visited (and presumably most read) articles I produce a list of ten or so of my greatest hits from there. Please note that there are posts which have had and continue to have a fairly large readership from previous years and they’re not necessarily the ones I might have expected but the stats demand their inclusion here.
Following that I then toss in a few which are my personal faves (please read them) to produce what I hope is a reasonably cogent and readable list. Following my own description of my guiding principles I endeavor to present the perspective of person whose day job and energies are spent in decidedly non-musical efforts but whose interest and passion for new music drives this blog where I share those interests.
As a largely self taught writer (and sometime composer) I qualify my opinions as being those of an educated listener whose allegiances are to what I perceive as pleasing and artistically ideal based on my personal perception of the composer’s/performer’s intent. I am not a voting member for the Grammys and I receive no compensation for favorable reviews. I have the hope/belief that my blogs will ultimately garner a few more listens or performances of art that I hope brings my readers at least some of the joy I feel.
New Music Buff’s Best of 2021
As of this writing I have published 37 blog posts in 2021. COVID, job and personal stressors have resulted in my failing to post at all in December, 2020, January, June, and July of 2021. And only one post in February, 2021. Surprisingly I have managed to get just over 9300 views so far this year (a little more views than last year actually) and it is my plan to publish 4-5 blogs per month going forward into my tenth year.
Not surprisingly, most of my readers are from the United States but I’m pleased to say that I’ve had hits from 192 countries at last count. Thanks to all my readers, apologies to the many countries who didn’t make the cut this year (you’re all welcome to try again in 2022). So, following the United States here are the subsequent top 25 countries who have viewed the blog:
Canada, United Kingdom, Germany, China, France, Netherlands, Spain, Australia, Ireland, India, Italy, Turkey, Nigeria, Japan, Brazil, South Korea, Denmark, Belgium, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Poland, Philippines, Ghana, Norway.
Top Ten Most Read of 2021
The following are the most seen articles of 2021. Some of these are articles whose popularity surprise me as they were written some time ago and are not necessarily, in my opinion, my best work. But readership is readership and I am grateful for that.
Top article, Linda Twine, a Musician You Should Know. Twine is a musician and composer who has worked for some years in New York theater. I chose to profile her and I guess she is well liked because this article from 2018 is one of my top performers. Kudos, Ms. Twine.
Next up is, The Three Black Countertenors, an article suggested by my friend Bill Doggett whose website is a must visit for anyone interested in black classical musicians. This one, from 2014, continues to find readers. It is about the first time three black countertenors appeared on the same stage. Countertenors are themselves a vocal minority when considered in the company of sopranos, baritones, tenors, contraltos, and basses. Being black adds another level of minority in the world of operatic voices so this was indeed historic.
Art and the Reclamation of History is the first of the articles written this year to make the top ten most read. It is about a fabulous album and I hope more people read about it. This Detroit based reed quintet is doing something truly innovative. You really need to hear this.
Number four is another from this past year, Kinga Augustyn Tackles the Moderns. This album, kindly sent to me by the artist is worth your time if you like modern music. This young Polish/American violinist has both technique and vision. She is definitely an artist to watch.
Number five is a truly fabulous album from Cedille records, David Schrader Plays Sowerby and Ferko. This double CD just fires on all cylinders, a fine artist, excellent recording, interesting and engaging repertoire, amazing photography, excellent liner notes, and love for all things Chicago. This one is a major classic release.
The Jack Quartet Plays Cenk Ergun was a pleasant surprise to this blogger. The Jack Quartet has chosen wisely in deciding to release this recording of new string quartet music by this young Turkish composer of serious substance. I’m glad that many folks read it.
Number seven on this years hit list among my readers is another album sent directly to me by the artist, one whose work I had reviewed before.
Catherine’s Oboe: Catherine Lee’s New Solo Album, “Alone Together” is among the best of the COVID lockdown inspired releases that flooded the market this year. It is also one of the finest examples of the emerging latest generation of “west coast” composers. Dr. Lee is a master of the oboe and related instruments and she has been nurtured on the artistic ideas/styles that seem to be endemic among composers on the west coast of the United States. She deserves to be heard.
Number Eight is an article from 2014, Classical Protest Music: Hans Werner Henze’s “Essay on Pigs” (Versuch uber Schweine). This 1968 noisy modernist setting of leftist political poetry combines incredible extended vocal techniques with the dissonant modernism of Hans Werner Henze’s work of that era. Also of note is that his use of a Hammond Organ and electric bass guitar was allegedly inspired by his having heard the Rolling Stones. It’s a classic but warn anyone within earshot lest they be terrified.
As it happens there is a three way tie for the number ten spot:
Black Composers Since 1964: Primous Fountain is one of a short series of articles I wrote in 2014. I used the date 1964, 50 years prior to the date of the blog post, because it was the year of the passing of the (still controversial) voting rights act. As a result of this and a few related articles I have found myself on occasion categorized as a sort of de facto expert on black music and musicians. I am no expert there but I have personally discovered a lot of really amazing music by black composers which is way too little known and deserves an audience.
I am pleased to tell you that this too little known composer (and fellow Chicagoan) is being recognized by no less than Michael Tilson Thomas who will conduct an entire program of his works in Miami next year. If my blog has helped in any way then I am pleased but the real honors go, of course, to Mr. Fountain and Mr. Thomas (who first conducted this composer’s music many years ago). Stay tuned.
And the third contender for my tenth most read of 2021 is, Kenneth Gaburo, the Avant-Garde in the Summer of Love. This is among the first volley of releases on the revived Neuma label with Philip Blackburn at the helm. Blackburn’s instincts guided Innova records to release many wonderful recordings of music rarely on the radar of larger record companies and this first volley was a harbinger of even more wonderful releases to come. Just do a Neuma search and see what I mean.
The Ones That Didn’t Make the Top Ten
I would be negligent and boringly formulaic to simply report on these top ten. This is not a democratic blog after all, lol. So here are my choices for the ones that many of my dear readers may have missed and should definitely check out. It is anything but objective. They are, in no particular order:
Dennis Weijers: Skill and Nostalgia in an Auspicious Debut Album is a sort of personal discovery for me. This reworking of Philip Glass’ “Glassworks” and Steve Reich’s “Variations for Winds, Strings, and Keyboards” scored for solo accordion and electronics pretty much knocked me over as soon as I heard it. Read the blog to see why but you have to hear this. This is NOT your granddaddy’s accordion.
Vision, Virtuosity, and Interpretive Skill: Igor Levit’s “On DSCH” is an album I just can’t stop listening to. I raved about his earlier set of piano variations by Bach, Beethoven, and the late Frederic Rzewski and I look forward to this man’s musical vision as he expands the concert repertoire with works you probably haven’t heard or at least haven’t heard much. You owe it to yourself to watch this artist.
Black Artists Matter: The Resurrection of the Harlem Arts Festival, 1969 is one of the relatively few times when I write about so called “pop” music. It is wholly unconscionable that these filmed performances from 1969 (many of which predated Woodstock) languished for 50 years in the filmmaker’s basement and were nearly lost. One of the recurring themes in this blog is the lament over unjustly neglected music and this is a glaring example. I was delighted to see that the filmmaker Questlove received an award at the Sundance Festival for his work on this essential documentary of American music.
Less “flashy” but sublimely beautiful is Modern Tuning Scholarship, Authentic Bach Performance: Daniel Lippel’s “Aufs Lautenwerk”. This is a masterpiece of scholarship and a gorgeous recording on a specially made Well-Tempered Guitar played with serious passion and interpretive genius by a man who is essential to the productions of New Focus recordings as well as being a fine musician himself. Read the review or the liner notes for details but just listen. This is another one that I can’t stop listening to.
Unheard Hovhaness, this Sahan Arzruni album really rocked my geeky world. Arzruni, a frequent collaborator with Hovhaness turns in definitive performances of these previously unheard gems from the late American composer. A gorgeous physical production and a lucid recording make this another disc that lives on my “frequently played” shelf.
New Music from Faroese Master Sunleif Rasmussen with soloist Michala Petri is an album of world premieres by this master composer from the Faroe Islands. It is also a tribute to the enduring artistry of Michala Petri. I had the honor and pleasure of meeting both of these artists some years ago in San Francisco and anything they do will demand my attention, they’re that good.
Last but not least, as they say, Robert Moran: Points of Departure is another triumph of Philip Blackburn’s curation on Neuma records. I have personally been a fan of Moran’s music since I first heard his work at the Chicago iteration of New Music America in 1982. Blackburn’s service to this composer’s work can be likened to similar service done by David Starobin at Bridge Records (who have embarked on complete works projects with several contemporary composers) and Tom Steenland’s work with Guy Klucevsek and Tod Dockstader at Starkland records. Blackburn had previously released the out of print Argo recordings of Moran’s work and now, at Neuma has released this and a few other new recordings of this major American composer’s work.
My apologies to the albums I’ve reviewed which didn’t make it to this year’s end blog but I have to draw a line somewhere. Peace, health, and music. And thank you for reading.
From the gorgeous photography of the cover, to the choices of the musical selections, their interpretation, and recording this is a love song to two fine Chicago composers, Frank Ferko and the late great Leo Sowerby. Here are two full discs of eminently listenable and fulfilling organ music by two of the best composers to write for that instrument in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Organs, at least the types of organs you’ll hear in this recording, are unique instruments built specifically for the site (usually a church) in which they will be used. As such they are a part of the architecture and are themselves works of art. If you’re a fan of organ music you have to have this disc. It is sonically beautiful and full details and specifications of each of the instruments recorded here are provided in the excellent liner notes and the Chicago born David Schrader is a truly fine organist (as well as harpsichord and fortepiano player). He has no less than 26 releases on this label alone, all worthy of a place in any serious collector’s library. One of the great added values of this release is its attention to providing the technical specs of the instruments involved (every one of these instruments is a unique construction) and those with an interest in such details will be thrilled with the liner notes which do justice to listeners who crave such details (this listener included of course).
Cedille Records has already done much to bring Sowerby’s music to listeners in several previous releases but this is the first recording they’ve released of his organ music. Frank Ferko, a well known working composer in Chicago (and points beyond), was also previously represented on this label by the release in 2000 of his fine Stabat Mater.
The first disc (of two) is dedicated to the music of Frank Ferko (1950- ) and all of these are world premiere recordings. While Ferko is a church musician this music is not typical liturgical fare. His work echoes the traditions of the great romantic church organist/composers like Marcel Dupre, Olivier Messiaen, Cesar Franck, Charles Marie Widor, Louis Vierne, etc.
All of the music on these discs is for organ alone and titles like “Mass for Dedication” fall into the category of “organ masses” (generally a French tradition) in which music is used liturgically but does not accompany choral settings of the texts generally associated with the sections of the mass in what is known as “alternatim practice” where the organ plays during moments that would normally contain sung texts. It is almost like incidental or film score music which is intended to create a mood for the ritual on stage or on screen.
Ferko, trained as an organist and studied composition and music history. He has worked as a church musician in various Chicago area churches and his compositions have gotten worldwide acclaim and performances. His Stabat Mater (1999) was released on CD by Cedille and his “Hildegard Organ Cycle” (1995) based on the music of Hildegard von Bingen (ca. 1098-1107) are major works worth your time.
The works on this recording are a wonderfully representative selection of Ferko’s compositional achievements and will doubtless want the appreciative listener wanting more. He clearly understands how to write for the organ. His basically tonal style is very listener friendly but clearly a style that represents the composer’s vision.
Leo Sowerby (1895-1968) was a Chicago composer, church musician and teacher. This disc presents a nicely chosen selection of Sowerby’s solo organ compositions. This is another in a series of releases presenting the too little known compositions of a man who was pretty well known during his lifetime, especially in Chicago where he taught for years at the American Conservatory of Music and served as organist at St. James Episcopal Church. Cedille has presented the world premiere recording of Sowerby’s Pulitzer Prize winning cantata, “The Canticle of the Sun” (1944), the composer’s second (of five) symphonies, and some of his orchestral tone poems. Cedille takes its mission seriously as it methodically documents the work of Chicago composers and musicians.
Unlike the Ferko disc, the selection of Sowerby’s compositions is decidedly non-liturgical and reflects his skills as a composer for the concert hall (of course the church becomes the concert hall here). In fact it was Sowerby’s Violin Concerto of 1913, premiered by the Chicago Symphony that brought the composer early recognition in his career.
The selection of Sowerby pieces, with the exception of a couple of tracks only available in online versions of this album, are a fair assessment of his organ works and a very good introduction to the composer’s style and compositional skills. The Organ Symphony in G Major from 1930, which occupies the last three tracks on the disc, is without doubt one of Sowerby’s most enduring masterworks. It has received numerous recordings of which this is the finest this reviewer has heard. The first four tracks are shorter but no less substantial works showing Sowerby’s mastery of this medium and his ability to engage his listeners in convincing and compelling essays which will have the listener returning again and again.
This double disc set has the feel of a landmark recording and, though many of Sowerby’s organ compositions have been recorded, many are out of print and/or difficult to find and this is one very satisfying collection. It is definitively performed, beautifully recorded, and satisfyingly documented. This one is a classic release!
Cameron Carpenter (1981- ) is a spectacular musician and showman. But don’t let his showmanship fool you. He is a brilliant and disciplined musician and arranger and belongs to a tradition of flashy virtuosos. He is also not the first organist to have and use a portable organ either. Prior to Carpenter people “of a certain age” (your reviewer qualifies) may remember one Virgil Fox (1912-1980) whose musicianship and showmanship delighted audiences of an earlier era. He too sometimes worked with a portable organ. In fact he did a show at, of all venues, The Fillmore East with his Rodgers Touring Organ. This storied home to late 60s rock and rollers included a light show with Fox’s performance of Bach et al.
Another keyboard genius who took on a little flash at one time is Anthony Newman (1941- ) whose enthusiastic and authoritative presentations opened a whole new generation to music of Bach and others as well as introducing them to the organ and harpsichord. Newman, also a composer of note continues to be a valued concert performer and interested listeners are encouraged to check out his website for more details about this man’s recordings and compositions.
One can’t look at Carpenter with his mod haircuts and stylish clothing without thinking of another wonderful flashy virtuoso, Nigel Kennedy (1956- ), a wonderful violinist with a powerful style and stage presence. Once again the presence belies the genius just beneath the flash. Surprisingly he does not have his own web page so I linked to his Wikipedia page. The Guardian and at Warner Classics also maintain pages on him. C’mon Nigel, get someone to set up a page for you, dude.
All this is just to put Mr. Carpenter in context (as much for myself as my readers). So on to the main purpose of this review, the disc. I don’t know off hand how many discs he has released so far but this one is a fine place to start if you don’t already know this musician’s work. It includes his work as organist solo and with orchestra, and as arranger in the opening work, Rachmaninoff’s wonderful Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1943). Originally, of course, the work is for Piano and Orchestra and is a piano concerto in all but name. (And the disc is indexed so you can choose each variation separately if you wish.)
Carpenter posing with his touring instrument
Cameron’s arrangement is effective and entertaining. I will not give up my love for the original but this arrangement does what a good arrangement should by providing insight to the music. I can only imagine the difficulties encountered trying to make this piece playable on an organ and balancing the sound with the orchestra. Fortunately Cameron has a valuable partner in crime here. The Konzerthausorchester Berlin is led by the brilliant conductor Christoph Eschenbach. And he uses his portable touring organ which sounds as good as any I’ve heard. They sound fabulous together and the recording is top notch.
How do you follow the Rachmaninoff? Well, how about the Francis Poulenc Organ Concerto (1934-8)? Yes, this concerto for Organ, Strings, and Tympani may be a discovery for many folks. It is a piece which hooks the listener from the very beginning with a crashing fortissimo chord from the organ. It goes on to an almost baroque sounding development with modern harmonies throughout. It is a fitting companion on this disc to the opening piece.
And, finally, the final allegro from the Organ Symphony No. 1 Op. 14 (1898-99) by Louis Vierne (1870-1937) who was the organist at Notre Dame in Paris from 1900 to 1937. Vierne (who wrote six grand symphonies for solo organ) studied with another grand master of the organ Charles Marie Widor (1844-1937). He wrote ten organ symphonies and a host of other music as well. Also worthy of note is the fact that the man who first performed the Poulenc concerto was another grand organist/composer named Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986) who was Vierne’s assistant at Notre Dame for a time.
If you like organ music you will love this album. And if you like flashy virtuosos then by all means check out Carpenter’s website and YouTube channels. Enjoy, and play it loudly.